Stress thresholds of mature European beech trees

This data set contains the data presented in the figures 1-6 in Walthert et al. (2020): From the comfort zone to crown dieback: sequence of physiological stress thresholds in mature European beech trees across progressive drought. Science of the Total Environment. DOI: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.141792. A detailed methodical description of the data can be found in the Material and Methods section of the paper.

Drought responses of mature trees are still poorly understood making it difficult to predict species distributions under a warmer climate. Using mature European beech (Fagus sylvatica L.), a widespread and economically important tree species in Europe, we aimed at developing an empirical stress-level scheme to describe its physiological response to drought. We analysed effects of decreasing soil and leaf water potential on soil water uptake, stem radius, native embolism, early defoliation and crown dieback with comprehensive measurements from overall nine hydrologically distinct beech stands across Switzerland, including records from the exceptional 2018 drought and the 2019/2020 post-drought period. Based on the observed responses to decreasing water potential we derived the following five stress levels: I (predawn leaf water potential >-0.4 MPa): no detectable hydraulic limitations; II (-0.4 to -1.3): persistent stem shrinkage begins and growth ceases; III (-1.3 to -2.1): onset of native embolism and defoliation; IV (-2.1 to -2.8): onset of crown dieback; V (20%. Our scheme provides, for the first time, quantitative thresholds regarding the physiological downregulation of mature European beech trees under drought and therefore synthesises relevant and fundamental information for process-based species distribution models. Moreover, our study revealed that European beech is drought vulnerable, because it still transpires considerably at high levels of embolism and because defoliation occurs rather as a result of embolism than preventing embolism. During the 2018 drought, an exposure to the stress levels III-V of only one month was long enough to trigger substantial crown dieback in beech trees on shallow soils. On deep soils with a high water holding capacity, in contrast, water reserves in deep soil layers prevented drought stress in beech trees. This emphasises the importance to include local data on soil water availability when predicting the future distribution of European beech.

Funding Information:

This work was supported by:
  • WSL (link)
  • FOEN (Grant/Award: 00.0365.PZI0427-0562 and 09.0064.PJ/R301-0223)


Walthert, Lorenz (2020). Stress thresholds of mature European beech trees. EnviDat. doi:10.16904/envidat.167.

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Field Values
DOI 10.16904/envidat.167
Publication State Published
  • Email: lorenz.walthertfoo(at) ORCID: 0000-0002-1790-8563 Given Name: Lorenz Family Name: Walthert Affiliation: WSL DataCRediT: Collection, Validation, Curation, Publication
Contact Person Given Name: Lorenz Family Name: Walthert Email: lorenz.walthertfoo(at) Affiliation: WSL ORCID: 0000-0002-1790-8563
Publication Publisher: EnviDat Year: 2020
  • Type: Created Date: 2020-08-10
Version 1.0
Type dataset
General Type Dataset
Language English
Location Switzerland
Content License WSL Data Policy
Last Updated August 27, 2020, 06:23 (UTC)
Created August 10, 2020, 14:20 (UTC)